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Empress 7/30/18 5 Nights inc. Cuba


twangster
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After dinner I wandered around and took some pictures.  First I checked out the Schooner Bar and found a singer / piano player at work.  I still have a song in my head from this. 

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From here I ventured into the main theater.

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The welcome aboard was about to start so I sat down for a while.  The comedian was good but family friendly tonight.  He has an adult show later in the week.

He pointed out this is the smallest ship in the fleet.  You can tell it's the smallest he explained, when it will fit inside the Royal Promenade of a newer ship.

The Viking Crown Lounge is very different compared to the rest of the fleet.  Note the folks on treadmills one level up.  That's the gym.  I guess you can go for a run while watching the late night dancing.

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"A Wrinkle in Time" was playing on the outdoor TV by the pool.

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Some of the drink specials.

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My glass block for reaching another milestone in the Crown and Anchor Society.  I plan these things and it seemed fitting getting one on this ship, one of the oldies but goodies.

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I was getting ready for bed when I caught some flashes in the sky outside.  In the distance was another ship.  I am sure they were far from the storm but from this angle it made it look very dramatic with a ship on the horizon.

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Day Two - Key West

After my red eye flight the night before it felt so good to sleep in a real bed.  I awoke to find us in Key West.

When I was at Chops the night before I noticed that Chops serve breakfast to Diamond Plus, Pinnacle and Gold Card Suites (GS and above, not JS).  On other ships I've sailed D+ is excluded from this list.  Naturally I had to check this out!

If anyone has experienced Coastal Kitchen before this reminded me of that breakfast experience including some of the menu choices.

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I'm starting to really like this ship ? 

No 'slumming' it in the WJ for breakfast for me!

No pictures this morning, too early.

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1 hour ago, twangster said:

When I was at Chops the night before I noticed that Chops serve breakfast to Diamond Plus, Pinnacle and Gold Card Suites (GS and above, not JS).  On other ships I've sailed D+ is excluded from this list. 

Very nice !  First ship I've heard of allowing D+ to participate in the special breakfast

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1 hour ago, Matt said:

So being in Key West in July, was the temperature there today somewhere between "magma" and "Surface of the Sun"?

Not bad at all.  This coming from someone who flew in from a dry state.  Today it was 87F with 65% humidity.  At home the humidity is 15%, same temperature.  It was warm, make no mistake, but not one of those days you melt after walking 35'

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Where was I I?  Oh yeah...

Day 2 - Top Tier Event,  4pm.

Some of our Senior Officers are presented:

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Our Loyalty Ambassador announced there are now over 12 million C&A members world wide

Top Tier breakdown:

490 Crown and Anchor members on board

64 Platinum

30 Emerald

30 Diamond

15 Diamond Plus

0 Pinnacle

Top cruises have 561 points and are Diamond Plus

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Day 2 - Dinner

As I mention earlier I bought a BOGO Specialty Dinner package so tonight I am back in the Chops Grille.  Before I talk about that, here is the MDR menu for those not doing a specialty dinner:

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Now on to Chops Grille...

Same menu, so no sense reporting that.

The normal bread to start with:

(sorry I took a few bites before taking the photo)

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Crispy Goat Cheese Salad:

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New Zealand Rack of Lamb, medium rare.

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Sides tonight were Yukon Gold Mashed Potatoes, Creamed Spinach and Mac and Cheese.

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New York Cheesecake for dessert

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Different waiter but excellent service and a great meal again.   Since i did a BOGO I loved getting this check:

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I did leave a tip though.

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Day 3 - Havana, Cuba

My day began at 5am largely in part from having set my alarm at that time.  I didn't want to miss this arrival.

Another ship was circling around and at this point heading away from Havana into the morning sky. 

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We continued our approach and we started to see the skyline of Havana growing in the distance.

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We continued towards the Havana harbor.

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Morro Castle or 'Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro' on the left.  Later today our guide would explain this fort was designed by the same engineer who designed El Morro in San Juan.  At the time in the 1600's both were territories of Spain.

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We continued sailing into the harbor.

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Looking back in the direction we came from I could see that other ship beginning it's approach behind us.

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A first look at our cruise terminal on the left:

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There are two other terminals that have seen better days.  These were likely in their prime in the days when there was ferry service between Cuba and Miami.

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Our Captain and crew were on the bridge wing to bring us into the dock.

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Across the harbor you could see 'The Christ of Havana'.

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Our small ship extended quite a bit out of the slip so you can why larger ships can't visit Havana just yet.

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The terminal is fairly modern as Caribbean ports go.  The gangway connected to deck 5 from where we would disembark.

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26 minutes ago, twangster said:

Morro Castle or 'Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro' on the left.  Later today our guide would explain this fort was designed by the same engineer who designed El Morro in San Juan.  At the time in the 1600's both were territories of Spain.

It's the Morro Class of forts. No FlowRiders on these

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Day 3 - Havana, continued...

Around 7:30am and 30 minutes before schedule it was announced the ship was cleared by local authorities.  On any future return where I don't have a morning excursion I'll be ready to leave early and hope for similar luck to beat the excursion masses heading off.  

Since I had an excursion booked through Royal we met in the Royal Theater on the ship along with other excursions.  We were given a number to wear and received a free bottle of water to take with us.  I had brought one from my cabin and I would end up being glad I had two for my full day excursion. 

Our meeting time in the theater was 8am but most of the group was there when I arrived at 7:50am.  Shortly after 8am we were called to leave the ship.  

Immediately off the gangway but before entering the terminal there were the usual ship photographers there to take our picture with a Cuba back drop.  Past this you entered the terminal and a small area to queue for Cuban Immigration.  The lines were 4 or 5 deep but went fairly quickly.  The ship held an information session on day one at 4pm that was replayed on RCTV.  During that video they warned not to wait to be called, as the person before you walked on after being processed you proceed without waiting to be called. They simply looked at the completed VISA, looked at the passport and then at me before a series of stamps were made.  Then they handed me my passport and off I went.  No questions asked.

Immediately after immigration is a security check point much like you experience on any day one boarding a ship at it's home port.  Bags go through xray while you walk through a metal detector.  Quick and easy.

The cruise terminal is fairly modern inside and much what you would experience in many places with shops and a currency exchange inside.  The only thing missing - air conditioning.  

This is the view back towards Cuban Immigration and the security checkpoint at the far end of the terminal.

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Currency exchange at the opposite end of the terminal.  To the left of this is where we headed down the stairs into Havana or to meet our excursion booked through Royal.

Currency exchange asks that only one in your party enter, other's can just stand near and wait.  I presented (5) $20 bills and she looked it up in her computer and informed me it would be $87 CUC.   Since I was on a full day excursion that included lunch I didn't think I'd need a lot on this trip.

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Down the stairs you can simply walk out on the streets of Havana or make the turn to follow the signs for Shore Excursions.  This led me outside in the covered garage type area under the terminal where I found the typical lines for each shore excursion group.  

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The wait here was longer than the wait for Cuban Immigration but wasn't that bad.  It was already getting warm and you could tell it was going to be hot and humid today.

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After watching several buses depart finally it was our turn.

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Very modern and comfortable bus.

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Finally underway we get our 1st look at the streets of Havana.

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The fort on this side of the harbor directly across from Del Morro.

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I'm not a fan of taking photos through windows on a moving bus so I'll restrict those to just a few.

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Day 3 - Havana

Revolution Square - Plaza de la Revolución

Our guide give a brief talk before we got off the bus and explored on our own.  There is a lot of history that has taken place here and it was interesting to walk around.

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Government buildings.  

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The José Martí Memorial

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One end of the square serves as a parking area for taxis.

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2 hours ago, twangster said:

Morro Castle or 'Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro' on the left.  Later today our guide would explain this fort was designed by the same engineer who designed El Morro in San Juan.  At the time in the 1600's both were territories of Spain.

That explains why it reminded me so much of San Juan when I watched your morning scope yesterday.  Beautiful pics @twangster!  I think you more than "did it justice".

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Interestingly enough you had a shorter wait at customs than I did, but our wait for a bus in the garage seemed to be shorter than yours.  Lesson for all here is anticipate a lot of waiting between when you walk off the ship and when you actually get on a bus that departs.

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Thee older cars in a couple of your photos, especially the taxi stand, are really cool. Amazing how they look, almost pristine. I saw a special on tv last year all about Cuba, the "taxis" in particular. The car owner has operational standards that the vehicle must be in as well as the exterior finish and condition. These folks take being a taxi driver serious! :27_sunglasses:

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Day 3 - Havana, continued...

Christopher Columbus Cemetery, Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón

Ranked by some in the top five of cemeteries around the world, this cemetery has over 500 major mausoleums.  

There is incredible detail in many of these and there are over 5,000 buried here.

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This one is called 'Monumento a los Bomberos' and is dedicated to 28 firefighters who ran into a burning building in 1890 only to have it explode, killing them all.  

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Our guide tells us this next one is the most visited grave in the cemetery.  Amelia and Baby.  The mother died while six months pregnant.  Mother and child were laid to rest.  Variations of the story involve the tomb being exhumed many years later only to find the child had moved or the mother was in the same state as the day she was entombed, thought to be a miracle. 

After her death, her husband would visit often, bringing flowers, knocking on the grave and seeking advice.  While approaching or leaving he would never turn his back on Amelia so the tradition is to approach, ask for a miracle and back away never turning your back on Amelia.  The tomb now is covered with hundreds of plaques from people who give thanks to Amelia for granting their miracle over the years since her death.  The people on the left are walking backwards always facing Amelia.

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This the main church.  There are typically 45 burials per day here so each service within the church is limited to eight minutes.

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We viewed a very small part of this 140 acre cemetery. 

While not your typical tourist attraction it was very interesting and beautiful providing a lot insight to the spirituality of the Cuban people.

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Day 3 - Havana, continued...

Fusterlandia

Jose Rodriguez Fuster is an artist who started decorating his own home with mosaic tiles he found while visiting neighboring countries.  Tired of seeing the rest of impoverished neighborhood run down, he began decorating many of their homes at no charge.  His own home is open to the public to explore and the neighborhood is turning into an artisans paradise with other artists joining in over the years.  The neighborhood has become to be known as Fusterlandia.  There are many artists selling their local arts within Fusterlania.

We start in Fuster's home:

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There is mosaic tile literally everywhere.

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Day 3 - Havana, continued... 

Lunch

Lunch was included in our excursion and today we stopped at Salon Rojo.  This venue used to be a casino for the neighboring Hotel Capri but now serves in the role of a night club.

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Our meal included a welcome drink which was the National drink of Cuba, the Mojito.

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Much like a night club at home there were automated spotlights that changed colors and patterns moving around the room.  It was an eclectic lunch environment. 

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Lunch progressed with an appetizer of pork and cheese.

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Also included was a choice of beverage, water, soda or beer.  Una cerveza por favor.

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On the bus our guide had called ahead to find out what was on today's menu and take our order.  Pork Steak, Beef Steak or Chick Breast.  Once we arrived we were informed it would be 'family style'.  This turned out to mean all three entrees served to each of us, pork, beef and chicken.  It was a very filling meal.  Rice was available on the side and lunch came with vegetables.

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The food was fine but to be honest it felt more like a hotel catered lunch rather than an authentic Cuba meal.  I understand it's challenging to find venues that can accommodate a bus load of guests so this was a safe and predictable lunch meal for an excursion.

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During our stop here another bus load of passengers arrived who proceeded to have a rum tasting and Cuban cigar experience.  Their guide took the microphone and walked them through how to cut a cigar, how to light a cigar, how (not to) inhale, how to take a sip of rum and follow it with a puff on the cigar.  

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That was all well and good for them but his voice over the speakers dominated our lunch.  They were far enough away to not smell their cigars but it made for an awkward lunch and made any lunch conversations impossible.

All in all it worked and my belly was full but far from the expectations I had set in my mind booking this excursion.

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After our Havana lunch we were promised a stop at a store where we could buy rum, coffee or cigars.

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Unfortunately that's not our bus.  With two bus loads of passengers in the store it was beyond packed.  I took this photo and bailed.  If they had A/C it was turned way up, to 40° C.

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Can't stop taking pictures of cars...

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In that first photo you can see folks hanging around waiting to sell you 'street cigars'.  Our guide warned us about them.  They could be anything, including dried banana leaves instead of tabacco inside.  You don't want to buy anything on the streets in Cuba.  

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4 hours ago, rjac said:

Thee older cars in a couple of your photos, especially the taxi stand, are really cool. Amazing how they look, almost pristine. I saw a special on tv last year all about Cuba, the "taxis" in particular. The car owner has operational standards that the vehicle must be in as well as the exterior finish and condition. These folks take being a taxi driver serious! :27_sunglasses:

They take great pride in their cars.  A regular used car might sell for $20k.  A classic car that is constantly breaking down is $30k.  I don't know about operational standard, our guide tells us they consume four times the gas compared to something newer (10 years old).  

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On 8/2/2018 at 4:24 PM, Matt said:

Did Fusterlandia feel like a tourist trap at all? I purposefully avoided excursions there because I had no interest in seeing it.  Neat, no doubt, just not of interest to me.

Not a tourist trap exactly.  I saw some interesting art.   The average Cuban is likely not going simply because they have no disposable income.  So in that sense you'll find more tourists.  

Nothing I wanted to drag around all day on a bus but if you like artsy stuff from local artists as opposed to Chinese fridge magnets sort of thing.   It might not be for everyone.  On my next overnight I might go back not for his house but to look around a little more to find something Cuban to bring home.  

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10 minutes ago, twangster said:

our guide tells us they consume four times the gas compared to something newer

Of course. These autos are from the 50's and 60's with carburetors. No computerized, fuel injection, gas saving features on these old babies! But, they look GREAT! :27_sunglasses:

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Day 3 - Havana, continued...

Hemingway's House

According to our guide, the Hemingway House in Key West was actually his wife's house.  The one in Havana is his real house.  15 kilometers from downtown The Hemingway house overlooks Havana.

He wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Old Man and The Sea here.

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The garage and guest house where other notable authors and guests stayed when visiting.

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While you can't go inside, they have opened the doors with ropes to block access so you can view the interior.

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A worker came by and offered to take pictures of the inside for me.  For a small fee of course.  I guess that makes her a professional photographer?

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His typewriter.

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Hemingway's Tower.

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The view towards Havana from his tower.

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His boat and the graves of four of his pets.

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The swimming pool.  As our guide pointed out - "Now that you have experienced our Havana summer you can understand why Hemingway had to have a pool."

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Of course there were more taxis waiting out front.

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Back on the bus and time to worship the air conditioning outlets.

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